Contrary to popular belief, field recording is not a niche interest. The art of live audio capture has played an enormous role in preserving and spreading artifacts of sound that we now take for granted as cultural touchstones. If it weren’t for the great field recordist Alan Lomax, for example, the world might never have heard the music of blues guitarist Robert Johnson and folk legend Woody Guthrie. And without portable audio recorders, which started coming out in the 1960s, there would be no such thing as a radio documentary. Field recordings aren’t just standalone artifacts. They also serve as a treasure trove of sample material for artists to weave into their work. Especially musicians. Listen to Pink Floyd’s “Fearless,” which just wouldn’t be the same without that field recording of a Liverpool soccer club’s fanbase chanting the standard “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
When we capture a live event on our smartphones, we tend to do it with video. Yet the audio component is often the star attraction, be it a baby’s first words or the whooshing of skis. In many cases, audio is the driving force behind our impulse to record something visual. The perfect example: a live concert. But what if we were to follow that impulse beyond the concert hall, to places that we choose to visit primarily based on their acoustic potential? That’s what a self-described field recordist does, but content creators in the realm of music, film, and podcasting now have added incentive to seek out exciting soundcapes because binaural audio — a revolutionary 3d recording technique that used to be strictly reserved for professionals — is now accessible to everyone.
The Hooke Verse was released this past summer and it’s the world’s first Bluetooth binaural microphone. It comes in the form of headphones with microphones embedded in each earbud, which capture sound as you actually hear it — spatially, between two ears. When you listen to binaural audio through any ordinary pair of stereo headphones, it produces an almost physical sensation of being in the same exact same spot where the recording was made. The Verse pairs with your smartphone, but you can also connect it to a DSLR camera, a GoPro, a field recorder, or a mixing board — and anyone who listens to that recording will hear exactly what you heard, how you heard it, as though they were listening through your ears.
For content creators, the potential to carve out new creative pathways with the Verse is limitless. When asked how she plans to use the Verse going forward, NPR producer Josie Holtzman said:
“I would think more about sonic perspective as a narrative device. Just like the camera, what story are you telling based on the perspective of the microphone?”
Whether you’re interested in starting a binaural podcast, incorporating highly original audio samples into your music, or simply seeking extraordinary new sounds to record, the following five locales are definitely worth a visit — if not just a listen.
ANCIENT THEATER OF EPIDAURUS
Location: Epidaurus, Greece
What is it? Built on the side of a mountain in the 4th century B.C., Epidaurus is one of the best preserved Ancient Greek theaters, with 55 semi-circular rows that hold an audience of up to 14,000 spectators.
Reason to record: The acoustics are no less extraordinary today than they were back then, enabling actors and musicians to be heard — unamplified — all the way to the back row, at a distance of nearly 200 feet. So why does Epidaurus transmit sound so well? Because the limestone steps filter out low-frequency sounds, thus suppressing background noise, while preserving the high-frequencies of the performers’ voices. The theater itself is an amplifier.
GRAND CENTRAL OYSTER BAR & RESTAURANT
Location: New York City
What is it? A New York institution, this oyster bar on the lower level of Grand Central Terminal is celebrated just as much for its vaulted tiled ceilings as it is for its spectacular seafood.
Reason to record: A mystifying acoustical quirk makes it possible to stand at one domed intersection in front of the restaurant and whisper something to a person standing at the opposite corner — even amid the din of rush hour. The Whispering Gallery is one of New York City’s best kept secrets, not to mention an opportunity for fun recording experiments.
Location: Yucatán State, Mexico
What is it? One of the most touristed ruins in Mexico, Chichen Itza was the site of a thriving Pre-Columbian city founded by the Maya people circa 800-900 AD.
Reason to Record: Tourists are always clapping their hands around the tiered steps of the Temple of Kukulcan, but not because they’re applauding the architecture. The pyramid generates a flutter echo that perfectly mimics the sound of a bird chirping — specifically, the distinct rise and fall of the native quetzal. Research suggests that the Mayans specifically designed the pyramid with this sacred and evocative acoustical property in mind.
Location: Staffa, Scotland
What is it? This sea cave on an uninhabited island in the Scottish Hebrides looks like the stuff of fantasy, with hexagonal columns of basalt shaped in six-sided pillars. Its most recent name originates from the eponymous hero of an 18th century epic Scottish poem, but it was formerly known in Gaelic as “The Cave of Melody.”
Reason to Record: From painter J.M.W. Turner to filmmaker Matthew Barney, artists have long found inspiration in the stunning beauty and eerie natural acoustics of Fingal’s Cave. The composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote his Hebrides Overture in ode to the eerie echoes, which are similar to the ones you can hear in a cathedral.
GREAT SAND DUNES NATIONAL PARK & PRESERVE
What is it? At 750 feet, these are the tallest dunes in North America. They’re the main attraction in a magnificent landscape of aspen forest, alpine lakes and tundra.
Reason to Record: The Great Sand Dunes are just one place among many throughout the world where you can hear what are known as singing sands. When Marco Polo heard this deep vibrating roar in China, he attributed it to evil spirits. Modern-day researchers attribute the singing sand phenomenon to everything from the friction generated between the grains to the resonance created between the dry and moist layers of the dune.